The Call and Times, Column 19 – Chickens Do Belong in the City!

3 04 2015

(April 3, 2015)

The Urban Farmer

Chickens Do Belong in the City!

I’m going to cut right to the chase – the City of Woonsocket has officially granted me a permit to keep chickens!

I’ve waited patiently to publish this story since The Urban Farmer was conceived. This victory is but the quiet, oddly unobstructed end to a long, controversial, exhausting struggle. The story could fill a book, but allow me a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed.

Three years ago, in spring of 2012, I decided that my garden needed a trio of chickens. This decision unintentionally turned me into a “lying criminal” (as my detractors put it) because, as I came to find out a year later, chickens were illegal in Woonsocket. As I got ready to bid farewell to my birds, I reached out to Councilman Marc Dubois, who researched the issue and decided to draft an ordinance that would make it possible to raise backyard chickens in Woonsocket. Long story short – despite an enormous effort, logical argument that would make Aristotle blush, and an impression of greater political support than what actually existed, we were defeated harshly 5-to-2 in April 2013. And that was that.

But it wasn’t. Since then, some version of the law has always been on the table, built-up and torn down in order to fit the needs of our city. Newly-elected Councilwoman Melissa Murray took the reins late in 2013, and with some combination of persistence, luck, and unwillingness to let the opposition’s false claims go undisputed, the tides shifted in our favor. Mostly due to that mysterious force that Shakespeare rightly termed “the law’s delay”, it was October 2014 when the City Council finally passed the law. Woonsocket can now grant applications for its residents to keep chickens, and has successfully approved the first of (what I hope are) quite a few.

The rules themselves are pretty straightforward, almost identical to the version I described last July. Applications are limited to “owner occupied one and two-family homes in R-1, R-2, and R-3 zones”, and must comply with the regulations in the definition of “Backyard Chicken Keeping” in the Zoning ordinance. This definition limits it to five hens on one lot, and is otherwise basic – no roosters, a comfortable coop with setback restrictions, no unsupervised free-ranging, correct storage of feed and composting of manure, and no slaughtering in the city or selling the eggs. Lest I take up too much time repeating myself, I urge you to refer to my July 2014 column (on my blog), and to read and fully understand the ordinance that was passed – this can be found at http://clerkshq.com/default.ashx?clientsite=woonsocket-ri, under “Ordinance Book”, “2014-30”.

The application process is a little more involved. “Backyard Chicken Keeping” is a Special Use Permit, which requires you to submit an application to the Zoning Office, and go before the Zoning Board of Review (ZBR) to prove that you meet the requirements set forth. Here’s what you need to do:

Fill out an application in the Zoning Office (City Hall). They will provide you with an application packet, which requires some basic information. You will also have to pay the fee, around $300 – it seems like a lot, but it is a one-time fee for you to keep chickens on your property, which sure beats the $50-a-year permitting fee elsewhere.

Construct a “Plot Plan” – the more detailed, the better. This should include a satellite image of your property, with borders around your rear yard and a proposed coop location. You also want to get a layout of your house from the Tax Assessor’s office, and draw your property lines around it – shade out a 15 foot border around your rear and side property line, a 25 foot border around neighboring dwellings, and your entire front and side yards (as defined by the Zoning Officer) – then, everywhere not shaded is legal coop-placement territory. Again, fill in the proposed coop location, with distance measurements from each of your property lines.

Provide diagrams of the coop – again, the more detailed, the better. This could be a picture of the coop you plan to install, a manufacturer’s diagram, or a hand-drawn blueprint with major features and measurements.

Include other relevant documentation: pictures of your yard and an image of the enclosed compost bin or feed-storage container. You have to provide enough detail without providing too much – remember, it’s very likely that everything you document will become binding.

Schedule a short site visit with the Zoning Officer, to certify the accuracy of everything you’ve submitted – 5 minutes is all it takes, and it makes the whole process a lot easier. The Planning Department will also provide a legal recommendation.

Attend your hearing! The ZBR meets once a month, and your hearing will be scheduled by the Zoning Office. If you aren’t the owner, make sure they attend, or get the appropriate letter in the permit filled out and notarized. This hearing is your time to shine – you will give brief testimony regarding everything in your application, and will answer questions from the ZBR about specific legalities. Be prepared to back up anything you’ve provided, and know the law!

The Zoning Office can further advise you with all elements of this application, and I recommend you to look at their records of my application packet.

Go to the URL given above; within “Woonsocket City Code” > “Appendix C, Zoning”, you should know the following four pieces of law inside and out – in Section 18, the definition of “Backyard Chicken Keeping”, which lays out the rules; Section 1.2, which outlines the purposes of Zoning; Section 4.4, which lists Backyard Chicken Keeping (#13) as a Special Use; and Section 15.8-3, which defines the Special Use Standards. It is the ZBR’s job to assess whether you meet the requirements of the law. If you qualify, do your research, and follow the regulations to the letter, I believe victory is in your future.

This story would be incomplete without expressing my deepest gratitude to two people: former Councilman Marc Dubois, who advocated for chickens long before it was popular to do so, and Councilwoman Melissa Murray, who has worked tirelessly to make it popular enough to succeed. He planted and nurtured a seed in the uncertain spring soil, and she built a greenhouse that brought the plant to a harvest. Every family who gets a permit to keep backyard chickens in Woonsocket should be reminded of their devotion.

We have so many others to thank – Councilmen Garrett Mancieri, Roger Jalette, and Dan Gendron, who co-sponsored and passed the ordinance; the experts, organizations, and residents who supported this idea; Dr. Scott Marshall, Rhode Island State Veterinarian, and Scott Scofield, Supervisor of Providence Animal Control, who testified before the Planning Board as expert witnesses; and Joan LeFrancois in the Zoning Office, Zoning Officer Larry Desormier, and the members of the ZBR, whose hard work and understanding made the application process straightforward for me, and set a good precedent for the future.

In a special column next Friday, April 10th, I will go into detail about how to keep backyard chickens, and what benefits they can provide to your urban farm.

By the way, you’re probably wondering about the language in the title of the column. Throughout this process, the opposition’s argument was basically that “chickens don’t belong in the city.” Well, after two years, quite a few versions of the law, a 4-3 vote, and a successful Zoning hearing, I would politely beg to differ: yes, they certainly do.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.

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